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Is Shade Grown Coffee Better?

By Daniel Parodi on

Shade Grown Coffee

In our last Take2 installment we discussed the basic ins and outs of growing coffee in high altitude conditions. This week we provide a brief overview of the features of shade grown coffee and look at three aspects of coffee grown under the canopy of other trees: biodiversity, climate and coffee quality.

Biodiversity. Coffee plants are relatively short in stature and usually grow naturally as an “understory” shrub (meaning it grows below other, larger trees and vegetation). Native plants that often provide shade to coffee shrubs include banana and citrus trees or tall cedars and avocados. Such a natural habitat promotes robust biodiversity — arguably the greatest advantage of shade grown coffee.

Instead of farms where coffee plants are grown in isolation, farms that embrace a more natural habitat foster an environment that is more inviting for birds, insects, plants and animals, encouraging a more balanced ecological environment. This kind of diversity resembles the harmony often found in unmolested nature: birds eating insects, denser forestation stabilizing soil conditions, natural selection promoting genetic diversity, etc. In such cases, there is a decreasing need for pesticides and herbicides to manage crop-threatening pests. It’s simply a healthier environment.

Climate. As we’ve mentioned as recently as our post on high-altitude coffee, our planet’s warming climate is necessarily shrinking the amount of available land for coffee cultivation. Several comprehensive studies have projected that global temperature rise could lead to a reduction of up to 50% of suitable land by 2050. Since forests serve an invaluable function at regulating planet temperature by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, denser forestation provides important relief. Most deforestation is done to make room for beef, soybeans and palm oil. Since coffee can effectively be grown in denser forests, there is a compelling case here for coffee grown in the shade of a forest.

Taste/Quality. Is shade grown coffee better? In this case, the short answer is the best answer: meh.

As much as we’d love to say that the cup quality of shade grown coffee is better than coffee designed to sustain the full weight of the sun, there is not enough science that isolates this variable. We know Kenya produces some of the most spectacular coffee on the globe and yet nearly all of it grows in the blazing sun. But, equally, there is no data supporting that shade has any kind of negative influence on taste, either. Bottom line: stellar coffees can be grown in the sun and the shade, and there are costs and benefits to both.

So what is the conclusion? When someone asks us if shade grown coffee is better, we try to illuminate a holistic answer: biodiversity is better, natural environments are better, thoughtful farming is better, sensitivity to climate change is better. So, maybe the answer is that shade grown coffee is, indeed, better.

After all, we try to make the case all the time that there’s more in a cup of coffee than simply toasted, ground coffee cherry pits!

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